I'll begin where Peachy left off- Zagreb, Croatia, where we had just spent a night trapped in a communist era apartment and where we had also been quite rudely turned down for Serbian visas because we are American nationals and in spite of the fact that we had all of the requisite papers and forms- political reciprocity in action. However, neither my Serbian contacts nor I were ready to simply accept the decision of the Zagreb embassy and from a Zagreb phone booth we came up with a simple plan for entry.
Legal entry- we had discussed the possibility of illegal entry through Montenegro. For those who really want to travel to Yugoslavia but don't have the right contacts it is a relatively simple option. Montenegro regularly snubs Belgrade authority by opening its border with Croatia to let in tourists and their cash. As long as you stay in Montenegro there is no problem, however, if you want to venture further afield- say Serbia- you run the definite risk of being detained and fined ridiculous amounts of money as several Swiss journalists found out not so long ago. Since our goal was Belgrade, the very heart of Yugoslavia, we opted for the more elegant, and legal, solution: first obtain Turkish visas, then go and ask for the Yugoslavian visas.
As Yugoslavia straddles the overland route to Turkey, they would at least be obligated to give us transit visas. It was also decided that it was best to ignore the main embassy (a good idea since my last meeting at the embassy had ended in some sharp words) and try one of the two consulates in Croatia, Rijeka or Vukovar. In comparing the two- Rijeka and a relaxing weekend on the Adriatic coast over Vukovar, in Slavonia, and a long wait in line with the hundreds of Croatian Serbs trying to get visas to visit family in Serbia- the choice was obvious.
There couldn't have been a greater contrast between our reception at the Turkish consulate in Zagreb and our previous experience at the Yugoslavian embassy. A warm reception followed by leisurely lounging and chatting with the consul general and staff while our visas were being processed provided our first taste of Turkish hospitality and given that their knowledge of English was below that of our Turkish, it was also our first opportunity to make use of our Turkish study.
Turkish visas in hand we headed for the coast and a relaxing weekend (it was Friday afternoon when we left Zagreb). And thanks to the strength of the almighty US$ we spent that weekend in a resort hotel, which oddly reminded us both of the hotel from "The Shining", for next to nothing. Monday morning, psychologically prepared and armed with Turkish visas, we headed to the Yugoslavian consulate. While our reception couldn't have compared with our reception by the Turks, it was at least professional and even perhaps slightly amicable perhaps it was due to Rijeka's isolation from the hordes of Croatian Serbs, NGO workers, and journalists that mob Zagreb and Vukovar. At any rate, we were spared waiting in line outside, in fact for part of the time we were the only people at the consulate, and ultimately our efforts were rewarded with visas valid for a month, more than enough for our needs. Belgrade was now an attainable goal.
The next morning we set out from Rijeka on a 12 hour train voyage that was as much a trip back in time- the train to Zagreb, constructed almost entirely out of wood, looked like it belonged in a movie like the "The Great Train Robbery". The five-hour trip would have been a great opportunity for rest and quiet contemplation if not for the noise, heat, and uncomfortable straight-backed bench seats. The Zagreb-Belgrade leg, though longer, was passed in greater comfort. As the train passed through Slavonia occasional traces of the civil war that was waged here, burned out and bullet pocked buildings, could still be seen though years have passed since the end of the fighting.
It was night when the train, now almost entirely empty, arrived on the Yugoslavian border. Though we had visas and though I speak Serbian I had little idea of how we would be received in Serbia, after all only a year earlier the US had been using downtown Belgrade to test its newest bomb technology. In fact, I didn't know whether being able to speak Serbian and my previous residency in Belgrade, apparent from the work visas in my passport, was a blessing or a cause for greater suspicion against me. Other than thinking that I was a spy, they could very easily assume that I was a western journalist-which in Yugoslavia today is the next best thing. Little did they know that as Jinx agents we are a bit of both.
For the past several years, Milosevic has held onto the reigns through his control of the media in Yugoslavia. Since NATO's attack, he has been particularly repressive of independent media, domestic and foreign. Non-state TV and radio stations have been raided by unknown assailants. The editor of "Vecerni Novosti", a leading newspaper, was gunned down, also by unknown assailants. Independent TV and radio stations are fined ridiculous amounts of money for fabricated violations. Even while we were in Belgrade, state police raided and shut down TV-BETA and "BLIC" newspaper, the remaining leading independent news sources in Serbia.
As expected the border guard did question me about my previous residency in Yugoslavia, and took both Peachy's and my own passport and left. I was a bit taken a back when I went to the hallway to see where he had gone with them when I saw him leaving the train passports in hand. I was also somewhat shocked when in questioning some of my fellow passengers on the train, including one Canadian Serb, I learned that the police had taken none of their passports or given them any trouble at all. Since the train wasn't going anywhere, yet I decided to stay calm and wait for his return which was a good fifteen minutes later.
Our passports were returned, and the train again started for Belgrade still a good two hours away. We had made it, we were in Serbia, however, I still couldn't relax. As far as I was concerned this was only the beginning of the reunion, other than what I had seen on news broadcasts including the gunsight images of recognizable buildings and bridges, it had been nearly two years since I had left Serbia, quite conveniently before the worst. I actually have to go now but will finish the Serbian travel log and add to it the Turkish one, hopefully soon. I hope all is going well at the Jinx world headquarters.